Interview: Violinist Katie Jacoby Talks Touring With The Who & More
In the world of rock music, there’s no violin solo more iconic than The Who’s “Baba O’Riley.”
Led Zeppelin brought us the powerfully string-heavy “Kashmir,” whose modern relevance lies somewhere in a Venn Diagram of Godzilla, Puff Daddy and The String Cheese Incident. “Dust In The Wind” by Kansas moved culturally from deep and sentimental to the funeral song playing in Old School as Will Ferrell cries out to his fallen brother, “You’re my boy, Blue!” Of course, there’s the classic, infamous duel in Charlie Daniels’ “Devil Went Down to Georgia,” with feisty folklore to match, while Zappa’s “Gumbo Variations” offers something more obscure and especially funky of the plugged-in, electric variation.
So many of the greats including Jefferson Airplane, U2, Blind Faith, Pink Floyd and Bob Dylan all took their stabs at violin segments, among many others too infinite to name.
But there’s just something transcendental about the stringed segment of British rock we’ve adopted as an American teenage rite of passage. Screaming “it’s only teenage wasteland” at the top of your lungs in a dusty field surrounded by other music-obsessed youth is truly part of growing up in America, and we have The Who to thank for that.
Recently announced, The Who kicks off their U.S. Moving On! Tour on May 7 with special guest violinist Katie-Jacoby. The 29-year-old musician from Delaware plays the “Baba” solo passionately and impeccably, and after some cameos last year with Roger Daltrey, will be joining the band for its entire 28-date tour. In the wake of this huge news, I recently caught up with Katie to discuss. Here’s what she had to say.
JamBase: How did you come to play with Roger Daltrey and The Who?
Katie Jacoby: It’s not some wild rock ‘n’ roll story or anything, but I was working on the Amazon TV show Mozart In The Jungle as a violin consultant, making sure the non-musician actors weren’t holding the violins upside down or anything.
One of the actors on the show is also an eminent contractor in NYC, and he connected me with the Daltrey camp. The tour I did in 2018 with Daltrey led to an invitation to join The Who for their 2019 tour, which is the hugest honor for me. It’s just absolutely insane. I’m still processing it.
JamBase: Congratulations! It is a huge honor. Did you grow up as a fan of The Who?
KJ: I was a massive fan of The Who growing up, and even sang and played “Baba O’Riley” at my high school’s battle of the bands, which we won, by the way. Around that time, I saw that The Who were playing in Philadelphia. I was an eager and audacious kid and managed to find contact info for The Who’s manager online and wrote him an email asking if they might need someone to play “Baba O’Riley.”
That was a pretty bold move [laughs]. Nobody ever got back to me, but that same manager and I shared a laugh over the story last summer. Though he did technically get back to me, it just took 15 years [laughs].
JamBase: That’s amazing! What a great story. Since Daltrey originally played the violin solo you’re playing now on harmonica, are there any memorable “back in my day” stories, or kind of hazing, or rites of passage you’ve endured to get the torch passed?
KJ: Not at all. Roger and everyone in his band and crew were so gracious and welcoming to me. They’re some of the most gentlemanly folks I’ve ever played with. I’m really looking forward to meeting and working with Pete Townshend soon, too. What a legend!
When I found out I got the tour, I tried doing windmills on the violin and nearly split my head open with my bow. I’m going to leave the windmilling to Pete, but perhaps I’ll be able to pick up a tip or two from the master himself.
JamBase: That’s hilarious! Would you consider Roger Daltrey a mentor at this point?
KJ: So, on tour, Roger was always reminiscing and sharing tales of yore. It’s super surreal to be one degree of separation away from someone who basically helped shape rock ‘n’ roll as we know it today. He would casually be chatting about his mate, “Jimmy,” and then I would realize mid-conversation, “Oh, he means ‘Jimi.’ Jimi Hendrix.”
But, my biggest mentor is Ed Palermo. He is the bandleader, arranger, and saxophonist for the Ed Palermo Big Band. He’s sort of been my musical godfather since I joined his band in 2010. Ed is such a prolific composer and arranger, and on top of that the most humble, giving guy. His live shows are the definition of eclectic and can go from Frank Zappa, to the Mahavishnu Orchestra, to a James Bond theme song in the span of 19 seconds.
JamBase: That’s amazing and so important. Do you still play in his band?
KJ: Yes, I do. I play with Ed Palermo Big Band, The Showdown Kids and now The Who regularly.
I also keep busy with a ton of freelance stuff around New York City. I did SNL recently with Mark Ronson and Miley Cyrus. I probably played at your buddy’s corporate gathering and your friend’s kid’s bat mitzvah. A couple weeks back I played at Carnegie Hall. Today, I just recorded a record with throwback soul string arrangements. The diversity of these gigs is a major job perk as far as I’m concerned.
JamBase: That is definitely a perk, and speaks to your versatile skills. Do you still work with Z3 and Youth Posse?
KJ: It’s been a minute since I sat in with Z3, but I feel eternally bonded with them simply because we live and breathe for the music of Frank Zappa. Us Zappa weirdos gotta look out for each other. As for Youth Posse, their members, both past and present, are some of my best friends. I’m lucky they let me crash their rehearsals and gigs. Their sonic ferocity and fearlessness in songwriting is something I aspire to.
JamBase: Sonic Ferocity. Well said. And regarding the upcoming Who tour, do you anticipate playing other segments beyond the “Baba O’Riley” violin solo?
KJ: The setlists are still being sorted, but I’ll be on stage much more this time around. This tour will feature orchestras every night, and I’ll be covering concertmaster duties as well.
JamBase: OK, so, you’ve covered the Grateful Dead with Joe Russo’s Almost Dead, The Who with Roger Daltrey, Frank Zappa with EPBB, Bruce Springsteen with Tom Hamilton’s American Babies and probably many more classics. Of all the “throwback songs” or bands you’ve covered, does any particular one stand out as the most memorable or special one to you?
KJ: My gig at Carnegie Hall just a couple weeks ago is definitely going to be a memory I hold dear. It was for the Tibet House Benefit and we joined a bunch of different artists including Jon-Batiste and New-Order.
My favorite piece from the night was a mashup of a Philip Glass violin concerto with Blondie’s “Heart Of Glass” that we performed with both of them. Performing at Carnegie Hall as a violinist is always nerve-wracking because the room has such a legacy. And then on top of that Philip Glass, who wrote the concerto, is right there, along with Debbie Harry, an absolute icon.
My hands were trembling and my heart was racing from the nerves, but it was such a dreamy collaboration that went brilliantly. It was also really special getting to meet and thank Debbie for the path that she helped pave for women in music. The woman wore a cape to perform at Carnegie Hall with the words “Stop Fucking The Planet,” all big on the back. What a badass.
JamBase: That is seriously cool. Congratulations and thanks for sharing about that, that’s really special. You bring up something important. Can you speak to risk vs. reward when it comes to a career in the arts? Is there a breaking point to you regarding financial success or do you think the passion for playing music is enough to do it full-time, forever, regardless?
KJ: If you want to make money, don’t pursue a career in the arts! Run! But making meaningful art and sharing stories through songs and melodies is priceless. It’s the only life I can ever imagine, though I wonder if the notion of fancy platinum-level health insurance will become more alluring over time.
JamBase: Health insurance being fancy! What a world. I won’t even go there. Do you play other instruments besides violin?
KJ: I played drums for a bit in junior high. I can play four-and-a-half chords on guitar, mostly for songwriting, and am a travesty of a pedal steel player. Pedal steel is quite possibly the most difficult instrument ever. Even the simplest I-IV-V progression feels like disarming a bomb before the countdown clock runs out. In any case, it will be years before anyone sees me play pedal steel live.
JamBase: We won’t hold our breath [laughs]. You mentioned The Showdown Kids earlier, which is your trio project with guitarists Simon Kafka and Scott Metzger, who is also your romantic partner. Is that how you met Scott?
KJ: Scott and I had known each other for years from NYC music circles, but we reconnected when I sat in with JRAD at Brooklyn Bowl during their March 2016 run. I couldn’t take my eyes off him that evening. Later in the year I convinced him to hang out with me under the guise of working on some of my songs. I was smitten. I still am, but even more, and now he’s my roommate!
JamBase: That’s adorable. Just wondering, have you guys ever considered pitching the music of The Showdown Kids to Jerry Seinfeld for Comedians In Cars Getting Coffee? It seems like the perfect style of driving music they use, and I personally love driving to it, especially in the morning.
KJ: No, but that’s an excellent idea! Does anybody know someone who could help make that happen? I love all things Seinfeld!
We did just put out our 10-inch vinyl with six songs, called, The Showdown Kids. You can [buy it here or] check it out on Spotify. I’m really proud of the little gypsy trio jazz band we’ve created.
JamBase: Awesome. And are you still working on releasing some solo music? I know you’ve shared that new solo music is forthcoming, but you’ve been so busy with touring, is that still in the works?
KJ: The solo music is still in the works, yes! I recorded some tunes in January that are on their way to be mixed. Most people know me as a side musician, so I’m really looking forward to sharing my original music and start playing out more.
JamBase: That’s great. To wrap up, I don’t know how to ask this without sounding totally cheesy, but how important has music been to your life? It is your career, you and your partner have a band together and seem to be rooted in your mutual love for music, and you’ve been playing for your whole life. Can you imagine your life without music? What would you be doing instead?
KJ: Other than Scott, music is the absolute most important thing in my life. It’s my favorite thing to do and the fact that I get to do it for my job is a greater blessing than I’ll ever be able to convey. I’m incredibly grateful.
I really can’t imagine a life without music as my profession, but if we’re imagining alternate realities: I’ve always been a lover of film and cinema and would love to either write about film or work in cinema to be close to movies and popcorn!